Spectrum wrangling


Last summer, broadcasters won the right to compensation for giving up part of the spectrum they use to beam footage from news sites back to their studios. So far, however, the victory has been only a moral one, because no stations have seen a dime.

Broadcasters and the mobile satellite communications companies slated to move onto the vacated spectrum were supposed to settle on compensation amounts, but the spectrum talks never got under way. Instead, the process is bogged down by requests from both sides asking the government to rethink the spectrum reallocation rules.

At issue is an FCC plan forcing broadcasters to eventually relinquish 35 MHz on the 2 GHz part of the spectrum, where electronic newsgathering services are designated. The shrinkage eventually will cut the size of the industry's seven electronic newsgathering channels from roughly 18 MHz to about 12 MHz. The mobile communications companies that move in will compensate broadcasters for the full cost of replacing or retuning ENG equipment.

Broadcasters, led by the NAB, are asking the FCC to speed up a phased-in compensation plan that currently allows the satellite companies to pony up the cash as they enter new markets and expand their service. Specifically, in top-30 markets, the initial mobile communications licensees first must bear the cost of moving broadcasters off 18 MHZ of spectrum, a move that cuts channel size from 18 MHz to 14 MHz, before beginning operations. Subsequent licensees will reimburse the initial entrant as they move into the band. In the next 70 markets, the first entrants will have three years after beginning operations to complete the relocation of broadcasters.

When the first 18 MHz in any market becomes crowded, a second phase will require broadcasters to give up another 15 MHz and shrink the ENG channels again to their final 12 MHz configuration.

The broadcasters want to get the shift completed quickly, and the NAB has asked the FCC to ditch the complicated phase-in schedule and require the new entrants to pay for equipment changes of every station in a top-210 market within the first five years of the changeover.

The Society of Broadcast Engineers, some station groups and other industry players asked for better interference protections.

ICO Services, a satellite company that has emerged from bankruptcy thanks to an investment from cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, is leading the fight for more- lenient compensation rules and calls the broadcasters' proposals "profoundly burdensome, disruptive and unfair."

ICO attorney Cheryl Tritt notes that the number of stations moved during phase one would rise 67%, from 1,172 to 1,963, were the broadcasters' plan to be adopted. The number of replaced tuners and transmitters would jump from 8,928 to 14,919.

But ICO is seeking its own rule changes. The company wants the FCC to authorize terrestrial in addition to satellite transmission authority and to extend the phase-in time.